Cancer as Evolution

For anyone interested in learning about the complexity of cancer, I’d like to invite you to check out a forum I started a while ago (but only recently made public) called Cancer Complexity.

One of the main themes (but not the only one) in Cancer Complexity is the notion that cancer is an evolutionary process (as in Darwinian evolution), except that instead of populations of individual animals, the population of interest is the set of cells in the body of a single animal. David Basanta devotes his whole blog to exploring this concept, both in his own research as well as in others’.

The National Cancer Institute recently held a summit of physical scientists which concluded that cancer evolution is critical but too often swept under the rug.  From their report:

Cancer is an evolutionary process. This has been a conversation that has waxed and waned in the field of cancer biology for a long time. However, data supporting any or all interpretations of what this might mean in cancer are sparse. From today’s discussion, it is obvious that the physical scientists believe this is a critical concept that needs careful examination in terms of its role in transformation to cancer and what follows from these original changes.

Coincidentally, I recently participated in a workshop at the Santa Fe Institute on Integrating Evolutionary Theory into Cancer Biology.

Clearly the “cancer as evolution” meme is on the rise…

  • Hello,

    I come from a sociology/politics background and write about the impending extinction of humankind and how to avoid it. To cut to the chase, my conclusion is that we need to centralize scientific understanding to the conduct of human affairs. My reading ranges far and wide – but I’ve only recently come to systems theory, and wonder at the value of spending the time to discover whether progression from lower order to higher order (and/or complex adaptive) systems might be a sound empirical basis to show the necessity of a cultural progression from hunter-gatherer – religio/social – to a scientific society.

    Any thoughts or reading recommendations you might have would be greatly apprecited. In the mean time I’ll look around. Thank you.

    mark black.

    • Rafe Furst

      Beyond the posts on here you might want to check out some of the books on my recommended reading list (in the menu with my name on it above), including Chaos Point, The Black Swan and Origins of Wealth.

  • I would highly recommend you read The Chaos Point. The author is one of the giants of version 1.0 of “systems theory” which became “complex systems theory” years later when the Santa Fe Institute opened. The Chaos Point itself is about the *potential* for impending extinction of humankind and how it might be avoided and how it’s too close to tell at this point (hence the “chaos” :-) It relies heavily on (complex) systems theory.

  • Ward Pallotta

    The best cancer book I’ve read in recent years is The China Study. Its authors might suggest that the evolution of cancer (and other chronic disease) correlates to the world’s increasing appetite for an animal based diet.

  • Ward, I did read The China Study and was quite fascinated, having recommended it to many friends since. One of the deep consequences of the somatic evolution of cancer is that ultimately cancer may not be “curable” in the sense we are used to. We may have to live with the fact that it’s an inherent part of multicellular life, and treat it like a chronic disease to be managed rather than eradicated. The best way to manage chronic diseases is to prevent them from becoming carcinogenic and life-threatening. This is where diet, exercise and environment in general come into play.

    I agree that The China Study has some eye-opening things to say on the incredible importance of diet as it relates to cancer and that everyone should read the book. However I would caution people to realize that (a) diet is not the only factor and (b) the authors are not totally unbiased (I have not met a scientist yet that was).

    In my own life, I have made some big changes to my diet based on The China Study. But because of (b) above and because of the fact that the body is such a complex system, I have not taken the authors recommendation to cut out all animal products entirely. Just for instance, they note that true vegans would need to supplement with B-12, but how do we know what other deficiencies would result from a strict vegan diet over time?

    Another factor to consider is that because of the complexity, diet is not a one size fits all kind of thing. As you know, some ethnic groups can tolerate lactose, others cannot; some people are allergic to gluten; some people are more prone to metabolic diseases than others; the list goes on. Thus, if people’s bodies and nutritional needs and tolerances can vary so widely, it would be silly to assume that the exact same diet is going to be optimally healthy for everyone.

    Again, thanks for bringing the connection between diet and cancer to the fore, and for encouraging me (and everyone else) to read The China Study, which is a truly remarkable piece of work, warts and and all.

    • Ward Pallotta

      You may be interested in seeing a newly released movie “Forks Over Knives.” For venues and showtimes, http://www.forksoverknives.com.

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